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Your Complete Guide to Strength Training

Your Complete Guide to Strength Training

So, you’ve finally done it. After months and months of promising yourself you would get fit and healthy, you’ve finally joined a gym. Good for you! Now, the last thing I want to do is dampen the joy you’re probably experiencing right at this moment, but I do feel like I should warn you that things only get harder from here.

If you’re going to get the results you’re after, you’re going to have to put in a lot of work at the gym, performing just the right exercises just the right amount of times. If you have no prior health and fitness experience, you can expect to make a couple of mistakes right off the bat.

That’s just fine, and mistakes are inevitable. That being said, I do want to use my extensive experience in this area to help you avoid some of the more common, more difficult to detect errors that gym newbies make.

Over the past decade or so, I have listened to countless new gym-goers bemoan the fact that they have been working out two or three times a week – in some cases even every day – and have yet to see any improvement in their overall strength.

While you can improve your physique with a basic workout program, improving your strength is a little bit more complicated. If one of your aims with your new gym membership is to increase your strength level, you should try to put together a specific strength training program for yourself.

But What Is Strength Training?  

If you’ve never heard the term “strength training” before, there’s no need to panic. In my time in the health and fitness industry, I have encountered professional fighters, runners, and even bodybuilders who had a minimal grasp of the concept.

However, even if you are unfamiliar with strength training as a term, I’m sure you have some idea as to what it entails. As the name suggests, strength training is an exercise regime through which the subject increases the level of power that they are capable of exuding at any one time, basically improving his or her capacity for heavy lifting.

There are a number of ways in which this is achieved, but the most common – not to mention the most logical and effective – is the gradual addition of weight to the barbells, dumbbells, and weight machines used by the subject. The starting weight the subject is expected to lift will vary from case to case, as will the frequency with which weight is added.

If you go the personal trainer route, you can expect the trainer to decide when your weight is increased, though you should never be afraid to speak up if you feel you are being asked to lift too much too soon.

A lot of gym-goers avoid strength training workouts, as they believe they have no use for them. The regular guy you see in the gym, whose level of fitness doesn’t directly impact his profession, may feel like it is not his place to embark upon a strength training program.

However, strength training is just as suited to the person who wants to be able to carry a flowerpot from one end of their garden to the other as it is to the strongman who dreams of breaking the world record for farthest anvil toss. Of course, the strength training program of the former may not be quite as intense as that of the latter, but I think that’s part of the beauty of health and fitness.

The gym is full of different people of different levels of fitness, all trying to better themselves at a rate that is comfortable for them.

Strength Training Exercises

Okay, considering the fact you’re reading an article that is designed to give you the rundown on strength training, I’m going to assume you’re at least relatively new to this, which means you’re unlikely to be on some crazy advanced strength training program designed for professional wrestlers and power lifters.

If you are only beginning your foray into strength training and are not entirely sure what kind of exercises you should should include in your new gym routine, putting together an effective workout might be a little easier said than done.

Here are some of my favorite novice strength training exercises for you to experiment with the next time you hit the gym.

Pull-Ups  

Most strength training is done using weights, but pull-ups are a popular method of easing workout novices into their training regimes. Pull-ups are an example of what is commonly referred to as “bodyweight training”.

Bodyweight training requires minimal tools and uses the weight of your own body to increase the potential output of your muscles.

Pull-ups require only a pull-up bar to be performed correctly. Most gyms will have at least a couple of designated pull-up bars, but you will be able to perform the exercise on the go as long as you can find a horizontal bar; in theory, you could even use the branch of a tree, providing you are assured of its sturdiness and don’t mind getting splinters.

As an exercise, pull-ups are pretty straightforward, and do not require a whole lot of effort to master. If performed correctly, the proper pull-up starting position will have you gripping the bar firmly with straight arms shoulder-width apart.

Your palms should be facing away from you, although your first instinct may be to wrap your fingers around the bar so that they’re pointing towards you (hand placement is one of the several key differences between pull-ups and chin-ups).

Once you are satisfied that your pull-up starting form is correct, slowly use your upper-body strength to raise yourself from the ground, ensuring your back doesn’t arch in the process.

There isn’t any authority on just how much of your upper-body should rise above the bar during a pull-up, but it is generally suggested that you try to get yourself chest level with the bar in order to maximize the effects of the exercise and make sure nobody accuses you of taking shortcuts.

Similarly, there is no set amount of pull-ups you should be doing as part of your strength training, but most beginners should aim for one set of ten or two sets of five.

Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown

If you have never spent any time in the gym before, you might be a little intimidated by the prospect of including the wide-grip lat pulldown in your strength training workouts. Don’t worry, your intimidation is perfectly understandable.

After all, wide-grip lat pulldowns are rarely seen outside of a gym environment. You’re unlikely to see them included in any workout montage on mainstream television and they are usually only seen by the outsider when featured on fitness videos on YouTube or Instagram.

While it’s great that some social media influencers are trying to bring health and fitness to an audience that might not otherwise seek it out, a worrying number of fitness vloggers have exhibited improper form while using the lat machine, so you probably shouldn’t take any advice from them.

For those of you who are totally unfamiliar with the device, a lat machine is essentially a weight machine fitted with a padded chair in which the user is expected to sit while working out. From a seated position, the user pulls down a curved bar, which hangs above them and is connected to a series of weights that can be reduced or increased depending on the user’s strength level and desired results.

It may seem a little complicated, especially when it usually sits right next to far more comprehensible barbells and dumbbells, but the lat machine, and in particular the wide-grip lat pulldown, is a fantastic way to increase your strength levels while building muscle at the same time.

For a successful set of wide-grip lat pulldowns, take a seat at the machine, facing the weights that you will be lifting, and ensure that everything is compatible with your size and ability. Once you’re comfortable, begin by placing your hands on either side of the bar.

For a wide-grip pulldown, your hands should be facing forward and be more than a shoulder-width apart, while your chest should be pushed out and your back slightly curved. Now pull down on the bar, drawing it towards you until it’s level with your upper chest.

You should hold it in this position for a second or two before slowly raising it back to the top of the lat machine. I have heard of some longtime gym-goers holding the bar to their chest for ten or twenty seconds, but unless you’re an aspiring strongman that really isn’t necessary.

As long as you hold it long enough to feel that infamous burn in your back muscles, you can be confident that you’re doing the exercise correctly.

A lot of strength training programs may not put you on the lat machine at any point in your early workout days, but I include wide-grip lat pulldowns here because I am a firm believer in their effectiveness and have been relying on them as a key component of my strength building workouts for years.

As a beginner’s exercise, wide-grip lat pulldowns are often overlooked. A simple initial regime of two sets of ten will aid in the building of muscle and help increase your strength levels to the point that you can up both the reps you are performing and the weight you are lifting in the process.

Deadlift 

Okay, I considered saving this one for last so I could ease you into the thought of performing it, but I think it’s best to just tackle it now and get it over with. I’m ripping the athletic band-aid, so to speak.

The reason I was so reluctant to include deadlifts early on is that the exercise is daunting for even experienced weightlifters. It is an exercise that is rarely included in the workout regime of the common gym-goer, but it is an essential component of any effective strength training program.

In addition to being a great way to build strength, the deadlift is a magnificent method to measure your strength training process, so it really is an invaluable exercise.

Okay, so in theory a deadlift is pretty straightforward. For the outsider or novice, all it seems to involve is lifting a particularly heavy barbell off the ground, bringing it to your hips, and then simply lowering it back down (or dropping it, if you want to be dramatic).

Of course, while the deadlift may seem simple, there are a couple of techniques and rules of form which must be adhered to in order to avoid injury.

When preparing for a deadlift, you should ensure that a portion of your feet (a little less than half) is under the bar. You should also be sure to keep your feet hip-width apart, as spreading them any wider will result in an uneven distribution of weight and will almost certainly lead to some sort of lower back injury.

When you bend to grip the bar, you should be careful to bend at your torso as opposed to at your knees. Keeping your legs hip-width apart, part your arms slightly further and take hold of the barbell.

Once you have reached this point, you can begin to use the bottom half of your body to aid you in your lifting. Bend your knees to the point that your shins are touching the barbell before raising your chest and straightening your back. The actual raising of the barbell should be done with care and minimum speed in order to avoid injury.

As the barbell is brought further up your body, it should maintain close contact with your legs, as attempting to hold that degree of weight away from your body will put unnecessary strain on your shoulders and back.

Once you have brought the barbell just below your waist, hold it for a second before returning it gently to the ground. Your technique when lowering the barbell is just as important as your technique when lifting it and should be paid careful attention if you are to complete the deadlift correctly.

When lowering the barbell, begin by bending your back while keeping your legs straight, bending your knees only after the barbell has passed them.

Deadlifts should be included in any worthwhile strength training program, but there is no need to make them a part of every workout. A single deadlift every second or third workout should be enough for a gym novice to see some results, though you can increase that immediately if you feel like you stand to benefit from doing more.

There is no set starting weight for deadlifts, but the majority of those in the know will recommend that you begin by using just the bar, and I’m going to join them in that recommendation. Beginning with just the bar will allow you to master proper deadlift form while still putting a little bit of pressure on yourself and your muscles to perform.

If you’re really worried about faults in your form and are paranoid even the bar will be too heavy for you to properly focus on your technique, you can practice at home with a broomstick or anything else which resembles the shape of an unloaded barbell.

It may feel a little bit demeaning at first, but it is better to go into legitimate deadlifts being confident in your abilities than to just fill up a barbell and wing it.

Barbell Squats 

A lot of people, when they start to put together a weight training program for themselves, make the mistake of focusing purely on their arms and upper body. This is actually perfectly natural, considering pretty much all of us use our arms far more often than we use our legs, but a well-rounded strength training workout should pay some degree of attention to the lower half of the body.

General squats are a great way of building muscle and strength in the bottom portion of one’s body and have been a staple of leg day workouts for centuries (although I’m not sure they were using the term “leg day” back in the 1800s).

A common bodyweight squat is an effective strength building exercise, but you really start to see results when you add a barbell to the mix.

The potential for error while performing a barbell squat is a little bit higher than it is with most other weight-related exercises, so you need to be very careful with your movement and positioning.

It’s a good idea to have a more experienced gym-goer with you the first couple of times you try barbell squats in order to ensure you are getting everything just right (it’s advisable to bring a friend even if you are a master of the barbell squat).

Before you begin getting into position, you need to make sure the barbell is resting at a suitable height on the pegs of the rail. The barbell should be sitting relatively low, not to the point that it is close to the ground, but low enough that you can get a firm grip on it without having to stand on your toes.

Before you move under the bar, grip it with your hands shoulder-width apart and facing the same direction as the front of your body.

Once you are satisfied with your grip, move beneath the bar and position yourself in such a way that it is resting on your shoulders; a lot of experienced strength trainers like to rest the bar just below their shoulder blades in what is called a “low lift”, but novices should stick to the shoulder alternative.

To unrack the bar, push yourself slightly upwards while gripping it in the manner we already discussed. If you have any doubts at all about your ability to hold the weight, immediately return it to the rack and decrease the load.

If you are comfortable with the weight, move backward with one small step at a time and position yourself so that your heels are almost in line with your shoulders. When it comes to the actual squat, you don’t want to simply bend at the knees. Instead, sit back as if you are attempting to take a seat on a chair that is far too small for you.

There is no agreed upon point at which you should stop squatting and raise yourself upwards, but most trainers will advise you to squat as low as you can without causing yourself any discomfort. When the time comes to raise yourself back to a standing position, ease yourself upwards using your glutes, knees, and hips.

Beginners are recommended to attempt this process at a total of five reps a set with two sets per workout. I know that may not seem like much right now, but your opinion will almost certainly change the moment you unrack that barbell for the first time. 

Strength Training For Women  

There is no real reason men and women can’t share the same strength training exercise program in the gym, but both will experience greater results when working off a program that has been specifically designed for their bodies.

Strength training for women has been growing in popularity over the past couple of years, with women from all walks of life coming together for strength training workouts and classes.

The components of a beginner’s strength training exercise routine vary from trainer to trainer and are heavily influenced by size and the available equipment, but any quality female-specific strength training program should include the following exercises:

The Plank 

Despite the fact it is one of the most straightforward strength training exercises in the world, the plank is feared by both male and female gym-goers and is something I have seen even the most grizzled gym veterans intentionally skip.

While it is indeed pretty difficult to endure regardless of your level of experience, the plank is a great exercise to build up your core strength and should be featured in every woman’s strength training program.

To perform the plank, you need little more than your own bodyweight (some people might choose to use a yoga mat, but that’s more of a personal decision than anything else). Positioning for the plank is quite similar to the starting position of a push-up, though your hands should be closer together (almost directly beneath your shoulders) and should be balled into fists with your thumbs facing the ceiling.

Your toes should be pushing into the floor beneath you while your legs remain straight. Your rear should be raised slightly higher than the rest of your body and your abdomen should be tensed for the duration of the exercise.

Beginners are generally recommended to hold this pose for twenty to thirty seconds, but if you are unable to do that, simply hold it for as long as you are capable. Your aim should be to increase your planking time every couple of weeks, with the ultimate goal being a full minute (some strength training programs will have you perform the plank on a number of occasions throughout your workout).

Dumbbell Bench Press

When it comes to the bench press, the barbell gets all the glory. Whenever somebody is shown performing a bench press on television, they are almost always using a stacked barbell.

While a barbell may admittedly look more impressive, a dumbbell bench press can be just as effective in building muscle and increasing strength. Dumbbell bench presses are particularly popular among gym novices as they require quite a bit less preparation than the barbell alternatives and pose less risk of injury if form or technique is incorrect.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put any effort into mastering the exercise. If you want to benefit from including the dumbbell bench press in your strength training program, you need to do it right!

To correctly perform a dumbbell bench press, find a padded bench and lie down flat on your back; padding is pretty important here because if you’re not comfortable, you’re not going to be able to successfully complete the exercise.

Take a dumbbell in each hand and raise them to the sides of your chest one at a time, then swivel your wrists so your palms are facing away from you as they would be if you were holding a barbell.

You are now in your starting position, so take a deep breath and prepare yourself for what is one of the most physically challenging yet rewarding strength training exercises for gym-goers of all levels.

To begin the exercise, push both dumbbells away from your chest and towards the ceiling, exhaling as you do so. Each arm should slowly move from the shape of an uppercase L to that of a lowercase one, at which point you should attempt to hold the dumbbells aloft for a couple of seconds (nothing major, one or two seconds should do).

The second part of the dumbbell bench press, the lowering of the weights, is pretty much the first half of the exercise in reverse, although if you really want to push yourself you should try to spend a little bit longer lowering the dumbbells than you did raising them.

Once you have brought each dumbbell back to the sides of your chest, you have successfully completed a rep and can continue with more or wrap things up according to your strength training program. 

Ab Roller  

You’d think it would be all that weight work that turns so many people away from strength training workouts, but it is in fact the core strengthening exercises that have sent so many running to the hills. Much like the plank, the ab roller invokes a great deal of fear within even the most fanatical of fitness enthusiasts.

The ab roller exercise is certainly no walk in the park, but when performed correctly it can rival all other strength-oriented exercises in terms of usefulness and effectiveness.

For an ab roller workout, you’ll have to get your hands on an ab roller (obviously). Any gym worth its membership fee will have a number for you to choose from, and personal ab rollers can be purchased online and in store, and places like Walmart sell them at discount prices.

To begin the ab roller exercise, take the ab roller in your hands while sitting with both knees on the floor. Once you have placed the ab roller on the ground before you, you are in your starting position.

Pretty simple, right? Okay, now here’s the hard part. Slowly push the ab roller away from you, moving it forward until your body is straight, almost as if you are trying to enter push-up starting position (your knees should be kept on the ground at all times).

There aren’t a whole lot of rules to adhere to here, but you should be careful to keep your stomach tense and your back straight throughout the exercise in order to reap the maximum benefit and avoid injury. 

Conclusion 

A lot of people romanticize strength training and like to imagine themselves lifting serious amounts of weight, with veins bursting out of their bodies and an adoring crowd of whatever gender they’re attracted to applauding wildly.

These tend to be the same people who cancel their gym membership the moment their training regime becomes challenging.

Strength training is never going to be easy, and if you want to have anything to show for it, you shouldn’t want it to be. Even the most basic strength training program will require you to push yourself beyond what you believed yourself to be capable of.

But when you complete the final rep of that final set, you’re going to be so proud of yourself that you’ll want to run to the changing room and take selfies of yourself in the bathroom mirror for all your social media friends to see (don’t do that though, you don’t want to be that guy).

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